“The show Entourage—its cartoony characters, its gluttonous spectacle, its frat bro brand of storytelling—didn’t take itself seriously enough, wasn’t solemn enough; it didn’t hit us over the head with how cynical and superficial and sleazy and wicked Hollywood could be, you know?” said not one person ever. But Ray Donovan, a new drama from Showtime following a fixer for the stars offers viewers a familiar landscape only to obfuscate it with broad strokes of grey. Waking up besides a corpse and epileptic blow jobs are shades of grey, right? Surely, surprise Black brothers have to be. And just like that, Showtime rolls out a muted, darker version of tinsel town. From quite early in the first episode, Ray Donovan, as a series, thoroughly establishes the texture we’ve come to expect from these premium serial experiences, almost to a fault. But Ray Donovan, as a man, played heroically by Liev Schreiber, is a compelling centerpiece to something that could just as easily be a convoluted mess of Hollywood navel gazing.
Luckily, Liev and company find ways to convince us all to stare into the belly of the beast, past the standard L.A. fare, into the violently dysfunctional, Boston-bred Donovan clan. Moments of Schreiber with a bloodied bat or Jon Voigt as the goonish Papa Donovan bridge the gap between what’s expected from two marketable names and potentially remarkable, transcendent performances. Schreiber’s dialogue is purposefully sparse in the premiere episode, he floats through this world as it gradually builds around him, but when he does speak, it’s curt and honest. He’s as jaded as you’d expect the West Coast Olivia Pope to be, but his values like his accent like his ostensibly dirty rags to filthy riches origin story anchor him to another world. But what this introduction teaches us about Donovan is that he likes it here, despite this scowls and incompetent clientele. Whether it’s the wealth or his family or his status there’s something Ray is going to fight to keep, just as he undoubtedly fought to achieve it. Still something, someone will eventually challenge it all.
Donovan warns of his father’s impending arrival throughout much of the first half of the episode: “You let him near this family, everything we worked for, everything we built, it’ll be over.” As with all successful men and emotionally broken women in television (two standards for the price of one!), daddy issues abound. Voigt’s ability to maneuver the cliché into a viable antagonist remains to be seen. But it’s clear that he’s seething with resentment towards his big shot son and has the means and skill set to make some interesting things happen going forward. This along with the welcome home eight-ball he snorts with the addict son and the boxer son he fathered with a woman that wasn’t Diahann Carroll (but a man can dream, can he?), either shoots him up the shortlist for father of the year or drives home the point that this is a family show. A show about men—fathers and sons and brothers—and what it truly means to be one.
So maybe the Entourage comparison was a bit short-sighted. Maybe this is more like Californication—aiming to be more mature, smarter, realer than its locale. Or The Sopranos—Ray and his wife are fairly Tony and Carmela-esque with the duplicitous East Coast past to boot. Either way, it’s difficult to call Ray Donovan anything exceptionally refreshing or new. It’s a safe and familiar, but there’s definitely a lot of room here to do something familiar exceptionally well.
Note: Julian from One Tree Hill guest stars in the premiere. Acting and stuff. Yeah. For real.